On Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius spoke at a Georgetown University award ceremony and was heckled by an antiabortion activist. On Sunday, George Washington University presented an honorary degree to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, as about 100 Latinos protested.
Sebelius and Slim aren’t the first commencement honorees to attract opposition. Here are a few others:
James Franco & UCLA. The Class of 2009 was supposed to hear from Franco, the famous actor who had recently graduated from UCLA. But then a group of students launched a Facebook group protesting the speaker choice, saying that Franco was not accomplished enough to address them. The LA Times reported that one student wrote this on Facebook: “He is a fine actor . . . and a very good-looking guy, but it should take more than that to be keynote speaker at such a prestigious university's graduation ceremony.”
Franco backed out of that engagement, citing a filming commitment in Ireland, and was replaced by the lead guitarist from Linkin Park. (P.S. This spring Franco spoke at the University of Texas at Arlington commencement and received cheers from the crowd.)
During the speech, Bush poked fun at herself, saying: “Now I know your first choice for today was Alice Walker (guess how I know!), known for “The Color Purple.” Instead you got me, known for the color of my hair!” She went on to tell the students to stay true to their own colors, to make decisions that fill their lives with joy and to be good parents. (You can read the full speech on Wellesley’s Web site.)
Since taking office, Obama has addressed graduates at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Barnard College, University of Michigan and Hampton University.
The Class of 2009 was especially rough for the president: First he spoke at Arizona State University, which declined to give him an honorary degree because “his body of work is just beginning.” A few days later, he spoke at Notre Dame University, where Catholics who oppose abortion protested his appearance.
Alton Brown & the University of Georgia. The university announced that the 2010 commencement speaker would be Brown and many students said, “Who?” Brown is a celebrity chef with a Food Network show and line of cookbooks who attended UGA in the 1980s and earned a drama degree in 2004. A columnist for the student newspaper wrote that few students had heard of Brown and the announcement “failed to incite any excitement whatsoever.” Brown went on to give a speech that some students labeled as “hilarious.” (You can watch it online.)
The UGA Class of 2008 had an even bigger speaker controversy when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was selected. At the time the university was dealing with a high-profile sexual harassment case, and faculty members said that the choice of Thomas, who has been accused of sexual harassment, sent the wrong message.
The university ended up adding a second speaker, a popular law professor. And, in the end, Springer gave a speech about ethical challenges he has faced in his career and his family’s journey from Nazi Germany to the United States. He received a standing ovation.
This is just a short list of the many commencement speakers (or honorees) who have roused controversy over the years. If you know of others, please share in the comments section below.